Thursday, October 7, 2010

American Football, American Incarceration

To the rest of the world, football is soccer. Why American football is called football here, when kicking the ball is actually an unusual occurrence, is I suppose a question for historians of the game.

My interest at present is to throw out a totally speculative theory that may help explain the outlier status America occupies internationally in the size of its prison population. In case you didn't know, ours is gargantuan, unlike any other country in the developed world.

Could it be that our passion for the violent game of American football, with its frequent, terrible injuries, has something to do with the ideology of inflicting pain on so many millions of people through (in my view) excessive incarceration?

In other words, does one type of American exceptionalism (quasi-religious devotion to American football) contribute to another (off-the-charts incarceration that makes us a nation of jailers)?

This question crystallized in my mind when I happened to read that Philadelphia Eagles' quarterback Michael Vick was knocked out of last Sunday’s game with an injury – and wasn’t the only QB to have suffered this fate. In the St. Paul Pioneer Press, right next to the Vick story (“Eagles lose Vick to injured rib, chest”) was the account of the Chicago Bears’ Jay Cutler going down as well. “Giants KO Cutler, bully Bears,” was the boxing-speak headline about that football game.

What triggered my speculation, I think, was that Vick only recently returned to the NFL after serving 21 months in federal prison for animal cruelty. He had gotten the starting job for the Washington game because the quarterback who opened the season for the Eagles had – you guessed it – been injured.

We live in a culture swathed in superfluous violence. Why should we be surprised that incarceration rates are astronomical? Or that the death penalty lingers on in most of the states, like a specter haunting the Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave?

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